What Is Denial Psychology & How To Address It
Updated September 18, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Patricia Corlew , LMFT, LPC,
At one time or another, everyone experiences being in denial. When it happens, we simply don't want to accept the truth of a situation. There are a variety of reasons for this response, but it can cause problems for you. If you're struggling with being in denial and its impacts on your life, know that you're not alone and that you can find a way to live a more grounded life.
What is Denial?
No matter who we are, over time, we all develop different coping mechanisms to help us to deal with a variety of circumstances and issues. These coping mechanisms can be healthy or unhealthy. When a coping mechanism is unhealthy, it becomes difficult for us to address our real issues or make desired changes in our behavior.
Denial psychology is built around understanding denial as a coping mechanism, along with the way it impacts us and our relationships. According to Merriam-Webster, denial psychology is a "defense mechanism in which confrontation with a personal problem or with reality is avoided by denying the existence of the problem or reality."
To understand how denial is used as a defense mechanism, let's start by looking at what defense mechanisms are and how we use them in our everyday lives. We will then discuss how denial can impact you and how to handle it later in the article.
When it comes to protecting ourselves psychologically, defense mechanisms provide an unconscious way to prevent unacceptable thoughts or feelings from making us overwhelming anxious. This process often means that we're trying to protect ourselves from feelings of shame or guilt, although these defense mechanisms can also arise when we feel threatened.
Often we develop these unconscious defense mechanisms to address contradictions found in our lives. For instance, we all have reality, society, and biology pulling at us. Add to that our intimate relationships with others, plus our relationship with ourselves, and we have many different forces influencing our thoughts, feelings, and actions.
With all of these demands upon us, it can be easy to feel threatened or overwhelmed, which is a precursor to anxiety. As a result, our bodies and brains create these defense mechanisms to help us to address the anxiety and any feelings that might be associated with it, including guilt.
Denial - A Primary Defense Mechanism
Psychology has identified denial as the primary defense mechanism that most people use to cope with highly stressful situations. It often involves blocking external events from our conscious awareness. Essentially, if a situation is too much for us to handle, then we refuse to experience it at all. That doesn't make the facts or the reality of the situation go away, but it allows us to pretend that it isn't real, therefore reducing its impact on us.
While denial might reduce your anxiety in the short term, the reality is that it's not an effective way to deal with a situation in the long term. Eventually, the reality of the circumstances kicks in, and then you have to deal with it. You may turn to blame to address your feelings of anxiety or guilt, trying to put the responsibility for your feelings onto someone else.
However, avoiding situations or assigning blame can hurt your relationships in the long run, so denial is likely to cause more problems that it solves over time.
How Denial Negatively Impacts Your Choices
When you use denial as a defense mechanism, it can easily become a way of lying to yourself. While it might seem easier in the moment, the reality is that it can cause you to develop maladaptive behaviors and unhealthy relationships.
However, denial can be a healthy option to protect yourself temporarily during tough situations. In fact, denial is only harmful when it causes you to engage in unhealthy behaviors or allows a bad situation or relationship to continue.
Unfortunately, most of us don't realize that we're in a state of denial until a situation has gotten out of control. If you find yourself dealing with the same types of bad circumstances repeatedly, then there is a good chance you're in denial in one way or another. Thus, over time, you could find yourself dealing with the same types of bad relationships or repeatedly making choices that put you in a similar bad situation.
Denial will also stop you from taking responsibility for your choices, leaving you free to blame others while making the same bad choices over and over again. However, you may eventually reach the point where you're ready for a change, and that means getting honest about your thoughts, feelings, actions, and choices.
Recognizing and Addressing Denial
While denial can cause problems in your life, it can be hard to recognize when you're slipping into a state of denial. Here are some ways to know if you might be using denial as a defense mechanism.
Recurring Negative Themes
Look for themes in your life. Are you finding yourself in a series of harmful or unhealthy relationships? Do you have to deal with the negative consequences of addictive behavior regularly? These questions can help us to take a hard look at the choices we're making. We might be creating an environment that fosters negative consequences.
We could also be fooling ourselves into thinking we're helpless when really we're anything but helpless. If you notice this pattern, then it might be worth consulting with a licensed therapist or certified counselor to address your choices, your denial, and your recurrent behaviors.
Blaming Groups of People
Have you ever used the phrase, "All [insert adjective] people are [negative quality]"? Chances are, you have. The problem with a phrase like this is that it allows you to deny your role in a given situation. As much as you might like to think the world revolves around you, the reality is that the whole world probably isn't conspiring against you and your relationships.
Therefore, it might be time to get honest with yourself and ask how you've contributed to the situation. Your actions do have weight, and they impact you as well as others. Blame allows you to shift the responsibility for your actions to someone else or a group of individuals, but it doesn't help you solve the problem at hand.
Take note when you use superlative language to describe the cause of your circumstances. It can be a sign that you are denying or ignoring the way your actions are impacting your circumstances. After all, you are the common denominator in all of your dilemmas and difficult situations.
Pay Attention to the Company You Keep
When you're surrounded by individuals who think the way you do, it can be easy to deny reality because your social circle is reinforcing your denial. After all, they likely see the world just as you do.
The most important thing you can do to avoid this trap is to be mindful of the people you surround yourself with. The people you keep close should be supportive and responsible. Think of them as a reflection of yourself.
Ways to Stop Denial
Be open to people who think differently than you do. Allow them to challenge your thinking on various issues, and be willing to examine your assumptions and opinions. You might find yourself asking different questions about a situation or considering facts you've been ignoring because they didn't fit into your version of reality.
Additionally, you might practice grounding yourself. There are several grounding techniques you can use to do this. The goal is to bring you back to the real world while also allowing you to calm any anxiety you might have.
Finally, think about asking for help. The advice and support of a close friend or family member can truly go a long way. If you need additional support, a great therapist can help you move past denial.
Depending on your level of denial, a therapist may use different techniques to help you address it. In most therapy settings, denial is seen as an obstacle to healing, growing, or making any significant progress, but there are ways to get past it.
Working with a therapist, you can develop healthy behaviors and coping mechanisms to address your life circumstances. Additionally, you will gain valuable insight into your thought processes and behaviors, so you can work with them more skillfully.
One of the biggest areas where you can see this type of work being done is with individuals suffering from addiction. Denial is often a key part of their ability to maintain their addiction, but once they can recognize that addiction exists, it can now be addressed with new habits and coping mechanisms.
With BetterHelp, you can find a licensed online therapist familiar with denial psychology to help you address your denial. You, too, can develop healthier, more effective ways to handle anxiety, guilt, or stress. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors, from people experiencing similar issues.
"Sharon Valentino has helped me through so much! Since we started working together, just a few months ago, I already feel like I have more power and control over my life. I have let go of some very painful things, I have moved away from abusive relationships and really gained the skills and tools I need to keep myself safe and happy. She has taught me that I have the power to control my thoughts, my anxiety, and most of all my company. I really like how direct she is; it helps me get grounded and connected to myself. I can't wait to see where I am after working with her a year!!!"
"Amy has been very insightful, offering the right series of skills to help me take control of my own thinking and emotions. She is supportive and always responds from a place of reflection and non-judgment, which gives me greater insight into how to solve my own problems better, rather than stress further. Highly recommend her to anyone, especially if you're feeling "stuck" in life's patterns."
Denial can be a tricky thing to overcome. The good news is that it's not hopeless. You can eliminate this pesky feeling from your life; all you need are the right tools. Take the first step today.